Before I press on the question, there are couple of things that need clearing up.

  1. The only reason that the silk that dominated Chinese culture comes from silkworms is that the caterpillars are herd animals whereas spiders, another silk-weaver, are loners.
  2. That said, spider silk poses greater interest than silkworm silk. Due to their functions as traps to capture their prey, they have to be tough. Contrary to popular belief, spider silk is stronger than steel, but not as strong as kevlar. However, it is tougher than both.

A spider silk's tensile strength is comparable to high-grade alloy steel (450-2000 MPa) and half as strong as kevlar (3000 MPa).

Spider silk has one-sixth the density of steel, but if we enlarged a single strand to the weight of a steel bar seen in 1930s news reels and 1940s cartoons, it would have been five times as strong.

Now like I said, most spiders are solitary hunters, which discourages the mass production of spider silk. But in this alternate scenario, there is a species of spider that might fit the bill--the Colonial Spider, an arachnid the size of a dime. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in numbers, behaving more like ants and termites than regular spiders. A single colony can release enough silk to smother a tree:

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Now in this alternate scenario, how would the mass production of spider silk affect the way we make clothing, upholstery, window treatments, rugs, bedding, parachutes and bicycle tires?

  • $\begingroup$ I believe Kevlar is tougher than spider silk, though I may be wrong. But I am sure spider silk can stretch further than Kevlar before it breaks. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Jul 29 '16 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ What are those pictures of? $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Aug 15 '16 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon Spider silk. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Aug 16 '16 at 0:20
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    $\begingroup$ I'm going to have nightmares. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Aug 16 '16 at 0:21

Apart from physical strength, spider silk differs from silkworm silk in two main ways:

  1. Silkworms produce their silk as a long continuous thread without any prompting from humans, whereas spiders are usually weaving complicated structures with lots of crosslinks. The silk you could gather from your spiders will thus be closer to what the silk industry calls 'waste silk' (short bits of thread) rather than the prized 'raw or grege silk' (long, long threads). Waste silk is more difficult to weave because of its bitty nature. It can be done by hand, but didn't really become a major part of the silk industry until people invented machinery to do the time consuming, tedious bits. (I have a book which says the first such machine in the UK was patented by Edmund Blood in 1671).
  2. Spider silk is sticky. If the spider is weaving it to catch prey, it puts blobs of glue on the strands. Unravelling and combing out such silk for weaving will be well nigh impossible unless you have invented some chemical to dissolve or wash away the glue.

So you'd need spiders which are using silk for draglines or nests or egg cases, rather than webs. Preferably not poisonous spiders!

And in case it is of use here's a scientific paper comparing strength of spider silk wirh silkworm silk

  • $\begingroup$ Good answer. Only addition is seperating the spiders from the web is a process in itself, not just removing the glue. Extra points if it venomous spiders...youd recognize workers by the number of welts from bites on them $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Jul 29 '16 at 21:39
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    $\begingroup$ What does a spider's dragline or nest look like? Also, egg case? I don't know. The last thing I'd like to see is a silk shirt manufactured with the squished remains of eggs or babies. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Jul 29 '16 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey - The squished egg sacks add value, like a diamonds imperfections. Redefine an icky to be a feature and you're all good. Ugh, I've been in the coding world too long $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Jul 29 '16 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey. Here's a link to pictures of a wolf spider with egg sac. The white thing is the egg sac gardenbuddies.com/forum/messages/64189/62215.html The egg sac is a protective case round a whole clutch of eggs. Spiders DO put all their eggs in one basket! :-) $\endgroup$ – DrBob Jul 29 '16 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ @a4android I've seen a TV science programme where they reeled the silk direct from a spider. They had to pin the spider down on its back and it was not happy about the whole process. I imagine its like trying to milk a tiny and very angry cow which has a poisonous bite! :-) $\endgroup$ – DrBob Jul 31 '16 at 8:59

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